Connection and anxiety

As I hinted at in my (Re)humanising eLearning post I directed a group performance entitled “A performance of connection and anxiety” as part of my Spotlight Stage session at Online Educa. The audience played the part of first year undergraduates while I represented ‘the institution’ in all its various forms. This involved everyone standing up, putting their hand on the next person’s shoulder and closing their eyes (100+ people seemed surprisingly willing to enter into this piece of shared theater).

Connection
Photograph by David Ausserhofer, Mark Bollhorst and Maren Strehlau. All copyrights by ICWE GmbH. CC 2.0 Germany

As I’d hoped this created a certain frisson in the room and when we remained silent for about 15 seconds that strange feeling of togetherness started to grow despite most of the audience being strangers to one other. I then circulated round the room ‘selecting’ individuals by tapping them on the shoulder while they had their eyes closed, representing the moments they might be ‘chosen’ or engaged with by your institution in some way.

Discussing this with people afterwards some commented that they had hoped to be chosen but they didn’t know why as I hadn’t explained what the implications would be. Others hoped not to be chosen but overall there was a healthy tension in the room – I like to think of this as the ‘good’ form of anxiety.

When I asked everyone to open their eyes and sit down if they hadn’t  been selected many people were looking around to see who the chosen few were. At this point I admitted that I hadn’t chosen anyone which fortunately got a laugh (possibly of relief :).

Overall it did feel like we’d all shared in a specific moment of connection and one, as I outline in the original post, which worked between strangers because we were physically co-present. Gaining that sense of connection online requires more up-front identity work but I believe it’s crucial if we see the value of the digital as a place we can learn together.

The three key areas I proposed for consideration to create connection online and rehumanise elearning were:

1. Spaces
Think of and use the digital as a series of spaces or places where individuals can be co-present and connected. (rather than just a mechanism to broadcast content)

2. Eventedness
Design in synchronous moments or ‘events’ online. This helps to create a feeling of belonging and that ‘I was there’ factor. The technology to support this is now pretty reliable.

3. Conversation at scale
Design mechanisms for discourse to take place at scale. Hashtags, commenting, shared postings, crowd-sourcing, editathons etc. This is the area which we are least adept at but I believe the technology is now in place to support conversation at scale if we can design our teaching to take advantage of it.

All of the above are underpinned by individual’s developing an online presence and identity. Something which is central to almost all Digital Literacy frameworks but which we often don’t prioritise when supporting our students and/or staff.

Share

(Re)humanising eLearning

For my ‘Spotlight stage’ session at Online Educa (15:35 on Thursday 4th) I’m  exploring ‘Re-humanising eLearning’. This is a theme very much inspired by Catherine Cronin’s keynote at ALT-C this year in which she spoke, among other things, about the value of online identity and open practice.

When I’ve mentioned the theme of Re-humanising eLearning to colleagues many of them suggested that eLearning was never particularly ‘human’ in the first place. This is a reasonable, if disappointing, comment. Nevertheless, take a look at almost any Digital Literacy framework and it will have the distinctly human (in that it is about the ‘self’) concept of a Digital Identity highlighted in it somewhere. In my favourite framework/hierarchy from Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe Digital Identity is the apex of digital capability.

Yet the primary experience and conception of eLearning for most learners is based around receiving a bunch of content that has been placed into a curricular structure somewhere online. No need for an identity in this scenario, just anonymously grab what you need to get your work done.

In my session at Educa I’m going to highlight how the efficiency and flexibility of this impersonal form of eLearning risks holding students at arms length. This is especially the case those who have many calls on their time (work, childcare etc.) and can’t make it to face-to-face sessions or have chosen predominantly online forms of learning to fit around other activities.  In this scenario it’s crucial that the digital becomes a humane learning space in which a sense of ‘togetherness’ can grow.

What interest me is how meeting in physical locations has an automatic feeling of togetherness built in, we feel we are sharing an experience without having to ‘know’ the other people in the room (a trip to the cinema is a good example of this). The very fact everyone has chosen to turn up to the event/session/lecture shows a common purpose. (I’m planning a little shared performance which involves the whole room in my Educa session to prove this point… See http://daveowhite.com/perfomance)

Online it’s a different story, when we move to predominantly text based environments we have to project our identity before we can interact or feel a sense of connection. What good would Twitter or Facebook be if we didn’t know who was talking/posting, if the screen way just a series of sentences with no attribution?

Identity and self expression are writ large in my mapping of ‘digital capabilities’ on to my 3 category model of digital engagement (see Breaking down digital).

I’m not sure I’ve captured everything I need to here but I’m confident that as soon as we move towards the Resident/Spaces end of the continuum we are engaging, however minimally, in forms of self-expression which leads to the projection of identity.  It could be argued that it works along these lines:

Technology (and the people in it) fosters agency > forms of self-expression > formation of identity > increased agency > and so on…
(note: should make this into a looping diagram)

So in a digital context identity and self-expression are crucial to becoming and belonging, whereas in face-to-face scenarios some ‘togetherness’ can be felt without identity. Those who are fortunate enough to be able to regularity attend face-to-face sessions are likely to feel connected to their learning and their institution; to engender this online requires more explicit fostering of identity and expression.

At this point we could switch ‘digital’ for ‘higher education’ and the principle still fits. The digital in this case is simply a mirror for what I believe to be the overall point of higher education – to encourage and challenge students to nurture their identities as legitimate participants within their field of study. They arrive with a delicate sense of who they are in the world and leave with purpose and a solid sense of self…

Share

Think Less – Find More

This is an idea I’ve been musing over for a while and regularly encounter in different contexts. The phrase ‘Think Less – Find More’ is my suggested strap line for Google search as it’s essentially what they are selling. Obviously this isn’t how they market their search service but it is in essence the message they are giving to users. The evolution from keyword to natural language searching and the increasing use of user data to tailor results is part of a drive towards answering (in part) your information ‘needs’ before you even know you have them (I’m thinking of Google Now here).

Think
CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/erikeckel/2133261517

In the Visitors and Residents research project one of the questions we asked participants (students ranging from late-stage secondary school all the way through university) was “If you had a magic wand what would be the ideal thing you’d want to help you learn”. A common answer could be characterised as “Something which highlighted the best information and the right answers”.  For example one student described a library type scenario in which the most useful books would glow in response to a question.

Unknowingly to our participants what many of these responses boiled down to was “I’d like Google to work perfectly” by which they meant that the top search results would be ‘correct’ so they wouldn’t have to spend time evaluating them or cross checking. So what we might describe as the process of research (evaluating and synthesising a range of sources into a cogent narrative or argument) they were thinking of as ‘what you have to do because the technology doesn’t quite work properly yet’. They had been sold Think Less – Find More.

I’m not saying that Google is evil or that these students were misguided, my point is that this is the culture we need to respond to in education.  Our pedagogy is still based in Dewey Decimal times while our students (and staff) are actually operating in a radically different knowledge environment. If we take into account the Think Less – Find More culture shift this is a huge opportunity for us as educators. Google allows us to shift from knowledge transfer mode and concentrate on helping students to develop their ability to think. How we managed to create an education system which doesn’t have this as its central tenant is a mystery to me…

If we redesign teaching incorporating the Web we will be nurturing agile and powerful thinkers who can build on the power of abundant information rather than leaving them to worry that going online is tantamount to ‘cheating’.

 

I talk about Think-Less Find More and ‘Currencies of Credibility’ in this video:

Share

Disconnected learning

(…and why there’s no such thing as ‘information-seeking’ for school students)

This month Jisc published a report I wrote with Joanna Wild about secondary school student’s experience of technology for learning. The report is part of The Digital Student project and makes recommendations to the Higher Education sector about how to meet and manage incoming student’s expectations of the digital environment.

School's report

The emphasis in the report wasn’t on the technology the schools owned but on how they incorporate it into the day-to-day curriculum. Generally what we found was that within the classroom digital technology is used in the service of making existing pedagogical processes more efficient rather than as an opportunity to engage students in new ways – an example being the frequent, non-interactive, use of PowerPoint by teachers. This appears to be an effect of the training available to staff which generally concentrates on functional skills, neglecting discussion of how technology can be effectively incorporated into teaching.

I’ve spent the last few years discovering how students go about learning now that the Web exists. Given that I was fascinated/bemused by the apparent disconnection between the classroom and how homework gets done. It’s truly strange that homework is set by schools with the assumption that the Web will be used to complete it but without admitting this fact institutionally. This is to the extent that many students don’t even receive textbooks for key subjects.

So on the one hand the Web is talked about as a place where you have to be wary of the quality of information and on the other it’s absolutely integral to successfully undertaking your studies. This feels to me like the start of The Learning Black Market for students and in theory puts them in a dissonant situation as they attempt to bridge the divide between the classroom and the way they complete homework. I say in theory because the quality of information to be found online will be very high and because they won’t be required to cite sources for much of their school career. So in essence the system works but not by design – it’s disconnected and I don’t see much evidence of it being brought together.

The problem here is more to do with ‘knowing’ than with technology. I explored the notion of a loss of ontology when discussing the relationship between Wikipedia and education and I believe that this is a significant effect of the disconnect between the classroom and home. Students are developing basic approaches to finding and using information online without much support from school. Obviously the aim of the game is to complete your homework as quickly as possible and then go out and play football with jumpers for goalposts (yes, yes, I know).

The sheer efficiency of the Web means that students can leap to a highly focused answer online without having to build a knowledge map of the discipline territory. In some senses there is no process of ‘information seeking’ – simply type a question into Google and the answer will appear. Crucially (and I’m happy to labour the point) the information ‘discovered’ will be good enough/excellent so raising eyebrows in a library-style fashion about this approach not-being-proper is not relevant.

This then shifts the task in hand to masking the fact that most of your homework can be completed with the use of one super-convenient source that appeared in the top three links returned by Google (often Wikipedia). From what I’ve seen that means ‘how to delicately rewrite stuff I’ve found online so I can’t be accused of copying’. (…to be fair that’s the same as it ever was in school but it’s more efficient and so more prevalent with copy and paste)

Information Knowledge Wisdom
Possibly Hugh MacLeod? via http://goo.gl/qkbG2B

This (slightly trite) diagram helps to illustrate what I see as the challenge formal education needs to respond/adapt to. Historically the connecting lines that evolve ‘information’ to ‘knowledge’ (I’d use the term learning myself) were partly formed by the process of information seeking -the effort required to piece together understanding by locating and trawling through books. The connections that build an ontology of information were a side effect of this relatively inefficient process. Or, in a lesser way, they were implicit in the structure and layout of your textbook. Now that information seeking is all but dead these lines are less likely to be formed, especially when doing homework. Wisdom isn’t my specialty but I’d argue that deep understanding comes from making connections and not simply discovering scattered answers.

This is the central disrupting effect of the Web on formal education, a disruption of pedagogy and epistemology. Our response should be to bridge the disconnect between the classroom and homework by designing curricula that explicitly accepts the Web is already central to how education operates and is a legitimate source of information.

Share

Wikimania

Last November I was invited to speak at a meeting of the UK arm of the Wikipedia Education Program who support the integration of Wikipedia into mainstream education. Much of their focus is on providing advice and resources around contributing to Wikipedia as an alternative to writing essays or reports.

My talk was titled “What’s left to teach now that Wikipedia has done everyone’s homework?”. The basic premise being that if the answer to your homework/assignment is a Wikipedia article then you need to change the way you teach.

I was invited to reprise an updated version of that talk at the international Wikipedia conference (59 countries represented) in London this August. (A huge thanks to Peter Sigrist who wrote an excellent and detailed account of my talk http://goo.gl/PcIY4w)

For me this was hugely exciting and a little daunting. Wikipedia is, in my opinion, the most popular and valuable educational platform since the invention of the printing press so I wanted to contribute to the best of my ability. On the day I discovered that the venue (the Barbican) provided its main-stage speakers with dressing rooms which was a new, and slightly strange, experience. I also knew that I was on the programme with Wikipedia’s Senior Designer Brandon Harris (@jorm) and all round nice-guy genius Jack Andraca (@jackandraca) – not easy people to keep up with (but extremely inspiring).

During the conference it became clear that the Wikipedians are generally so focused on what Martin Poulter described as the ‘axiomatic’ vision of “…a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” that they rarely consider the impact Wikipedia is having on a range of institutions and professions.  I hope that my talk went some way towards addressing this in regard to education.

The main concept I added to the talk for Wikimania was about ‘Loss of ontology’. The idea that our ability to efficiently search for pinpoint answers means that we don’t build the kind of ‘knowledge maps’ we used to when we had to seek out sections of specific books or journals etc. Given this if our pedagogy is still based on discovering answers then the existence of platforms like Wikipedia might mean our students aren’t learning as much as we hope. This, I pointed out, is a fault in our teaching methods which often don’t properly account for the Web and not a reason to attempt to ‘ban’ or besmirch Wikipedia.

The phrases from my talk which appear to have been most Tweeted were:

“The problem with Wikipedia is not that it’s inaccurate it’s that it’s too good” (i.e. you can find a decent answer without having to ‘think’)

and

“Wikipedia isn’t a threat to education, it’s a gift”.  (assuming we move from a pedagogy of answers to a pedagogy of questions – teaching students how to critique and edit Wikipedia is one way we can make this move.)

Resources I menioned during the talk can be found here: http://goo.gl/WYHCJu

Share

What exactly are your students up to online?

This is probably not a question you want a comprehensive answer to but it would be handy to know how they are using the Web to engage with the learning challenges you are setting.

I’m currently leading a project with the Higher Education Academy which uses the ‘Visitors and Residents’ mapping process to help teaching staff to gain a better understanding of how their students are using the Web for their learning. Successful applicants will receive £1500 to attend two workshops (12 Feb and 7 May 2014). The first workshop will teach you how map your own online practice to set you up to run the process with a group of your students. The second workshop will review the maps generated by your students and provides an opportunity to explore how you might evolve your teaching practice to engage them in new ways online.

V&R map
Simple Visitor & Resident map

The pilot version of this workshop format proved very successful, with a number of institutions going on to run further mapping sessions at their institutions to get an holistic, high level, sense of how the Web is being using in teaching and learning by both staff and students (with the view to informing overall teaching and learning strategy/policy).

Obviously I’m biased but I like to think that the mapping is a pragmatic way of understanding online learning practices which often go undiscussed in education. It has proved to be a good starting point for reflecting on overall approaches to teaching and for informing how best to work with students online: for example, negotiating the complexities of connecting with students in platforms which are based on a ‘friendship’ paradigm.

It’s only a 500 word application process so if you are part of a higher education teaching team in the UK please take a look at the form on the HEA website. The deadline for applications is the 20th of January. Perhaps I will see you at the workshops? 🙂

Share

Mapping online engagement

Back in June I wrote a post about the Visitors and Residents mapping process. Since that posting I have run mapping sessions with people in various roles from a range of institutions.  This has helped me to refine and simplify the process.

During those sessions I got requests to produce a V&R mapping kit that people could use to run the process with groups at their institution. I haven’t got as far as I would like with that yet but in the meantime I have extracted the most relevant 10 minute segment from the original mapping video. I’m hoping that anyone who watches this extract will have all the info they need to create their own map.

A single engagement map is all that is required for an individual and should drive a useful discussion if the mapping is done in a group situation. It should also be useful to then create a map of your department/library/project/group. This way you can assess the digital footprint (The character and visibility of your group online) of your section of your institution and the various modes of engagement you may, or may not, be using. It’s worth noting that if you are mapping with students some of them may relate better to the word ‘course’ instead of  ‘institutional’ on the vertical axis of the map.

I have collated a few maps from various people (including my own from the video) on this Padlet wall so you can get a sense of how varied the process can be depending on the context of the individual:
http://padlet.com/wall/visitorsandresidents

The maps on the wall have no commentary attached to them to preserve anonymity.

The mapping process originates from research funded by Jisc

Share

Visitors and Residents mapping process: the video

This is a video of the mapping process which we first piloted at Educause last year. It’s designed to help you explore and reflect upon how you engage with the digital environment and then investigate how your students/users/staff engage with what you provide. Feel free to use the video to help plan your own mapping session and let me know how you get on. The video is CC licensed so it’s ok to embed it into your work/courses directly with an attribution if that’s helpful.


Firstly, I should apologise for my appalling handwriting in the video. I hope that the gesturing opportunities of the whiteboard outweigh the lack of legibility. As a back-up I have included the two maps I draw in the video in digital form at the end of this post.

This video has been created for ‘The Challenges of Residency’ project I’m piloting as academic lead for the Higher Education Academy. The project is exploring the way Resident forms of practice might differ across disciplines. A larger call for that project will be coming out in the autumn, so if you are interested and UK based keep an eye out for it.

As mentioned in the video the mapping process is an output of the Jisc funded ‘Digital Visitors and Residents’ project which is a collaboration between Jisc, Oxford, OCLC and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The Jisc project has run the mapping process a number of times face-to-face in the US and the UK, with design sessions planned for a library focused ‘infokit’ on V&R being run at SUNYLA and ALA. The video will hopefully become part of that infokit, recontexualised to shift the emphasis toward information seeking.

In conjunction with this we are going to use the mapping process in a course we are developing with Jisc Netskills based around V&R. The course is designed to help higher education teaching practitioners explore and possibly incorporate Resident forms of practice into their work.

In the video I also make a passing reference to some work facilitated by Alan Cann at Leicester who used the V&R continuum to map the preferred modes of engagement of a complete cohort of students.

The process itself is in three parts:

  1. Map your personal engagement with the digital environment
    This is a good way to tune-in to the issues and will make visible how Visitor or Resident you generally are in different contexts.
  2. Map how you think your students/users/staff engage with what you provide
    This can include your practice online (teaching, support, information provision etc) or the services you provide in terms of platforms (VLEs, catalogues etc). In most cases your practice and the service you provide will be interwoven.
  3. Gather a small group of students/users/staff and ask them to map how they engage with what you provide

Depending on your role you may find large overlaps between maps 1 and 2. The overall aim here is to compare maps 2 and 3 to explore where expectations are being met or are being miss-interpreted. As I mention in the video discussions around the process tend to move from a technology focus to the underlying motivations and attitudes which inform the modes of engagement employed online. I think this is the strength of the process as it helps to avoid the technology-as-solution approach and instead focuses on practice and what it means in a range of contexts or online ‘places’.

For more information on Visitors and Residents:

  • The original video outlining the V&R idea and continuum
  • Our paper on Visitors and Residents for First Monday
  • The progress report of the Digital Visitors and Residents project (pdf)

Or you can contact me at david.white at conted.ox.ac.uk

More legible versions of the maps I create in the video:

My personal map (with a little more detail):

Personal map

My map of how I imagine students engage with what I provide online

Student map

Share

V&R mapping at Educause

What I was first reminded of at Educause 2012 in Denver was how much money is tied-up in educational technologies. The Expo was a daunting journey into the world of CIO budget power – the kind of issues my research makes visible did not appear to be top of the agenda. I fended off my feelings of alienation with the reflection that the attendees of this conference were exactly the kind of people who I should be ‘disseminating’ our findings and approach to. This was not going to be cosy preaching-to-the-converted situation in which we got to discuss the esoteric side of becoming-a-legitimate-participant, digital fluency or the shifting nature of credibility on the web. Add to this the fact that our session was scheduled for 8am on Friday and you can probably see why I was expecting a handful of participants who may have accidently wandered into the wrong room.

Denver
My view of Denver

I was encouraged somewhat though by the number of people who approached me to discuss the challenges of ‘MOOCing’ the Humanities after my question on this to Harvard’s CIO who was speaking about edX. (I’m not saying that projects like edX aren’t game changers but they seem to have confused experimenting with business/access models with ‘revolutionising learning’. At least that’s how the presentation came across.)

Friday, 7.30AM – and myself, Donna Lanclos & Lynn Connaway were so focused on trying to find enough dry-wipe markers for our session that we didn’t notice the room filling-up. By the time we were due to start we had about 60 people and some of them looked fairly awake.

Mapping
Proof that some people were awake while ‘mapping’

In the room were Heads of elearning, Deans, Library Directors, Senior Learning Technologists etc. People who are paid to make high-level strategic decisions about the approach of their staff and institutions.

The format of our session was very interactive: Starting with a brief overview of Visitors and Residents (the project and the idea) and then straight into attendees mapping their own personal engagement with the web on the Visitor/Resident–Personal/Institutional quadrant. I had shown a version of my engagement map created in a Google Drawing and put my Gmail address up on screen in the hope that people might share their maps. Almost everyone got stuck into the exercise and against my expectations over the next 15 minutes a few Google drawings did arrive along with a couple of photos of whiteboard maps. This meant we could talk through the results of the activity on the main screen using some examples drawn from the room. We had gone from outlining the Visitors and Residents idea to producing and discussing participant’s modes of engagement with the web in less than 30 minutes. It was the ultimate workshop turnaround and it got people talking because we had quickly moved from discussing an idea in the abstract to deconstructing the actual engagement behaviour of those in the room.

We then asked the attendees to map the engagement of their ‘clients’ (e.g. academics, student, researchers, library users etc.) with the services they provided in their institutions. Again I received a couple of Google Drawings which led to a brief discussion about the challenges of providing institutional services that are designed to engage in a Resident mode. In hindsight we could have done with about 20 minutes longer but I felt we had cracked the Visitors and Residents workshop format. We certainly got good feedback, including one participant who said that if we could put the workshop format online he could use it “all the time” at his institution. I started to wonder if we should extract the mapping elements of the proposed Visitors and Residents course and post them as a do-it-yourself workshop format.

During the hour after the session I received a few more personal engagement maps in a variety of formats, Google Drawings, pics of whiteboards/notepads and an Evernote Skitch. I gathered some of these together on the plane home:

Educause V&R maps
Educause – Personal V&R maps

Full-size version

There is a wealth of intriguing information here but the aspect which is most immediately striking and which came out during the session is how the same platforms are engaged with in a variety of ways. To demonstrate this I have highlighted the location of Facebook across the maps.

V&R maps with Facebook highlight
V&R maps – Facebook highlighted

Full-size version

This didn’t come as a surprise to me as the data from our Visitors and Residents project shows that many people use Facebook privately (Messaging or 1-to-1 IMing) or organisationally (keeping track of friends/colleagues but not posting or communicating via the platform). This supports one of the original tenets of the Visitors and Residents idea which is that discovering *what* technology people use does not give an insight into *why* they are using it or even, it would appear, what they are actually doing.

Skype & IM
V&R map – Skype and GTalk highlighted

Full-size verison

A pointed example of this can be seen in the most detailed map submitted wherein the functionally equivalent technologies of Skype and GTalk are mapped to different places because they are being used as a method of keeping certain areas of life compartmentalised (as an attempt to fend off personal/institutional convergence, or the ‘decompartmentalision’, that tends to be a side effect of Residency)

It was very rewarding to see the Visitors and Residents idea being used as a tool for reflection and planning. I hope that many of the relatively senior people who attended our session will be taking V&R thinking back to their institutions. I felt it was worthwhile equipping some of the Educause delegates with this approach as it should prove to be a useful way for them to understand their students/clients when they are bombarded with claims about efficiency, student retention and ‘intuitive’ platforms at the next big edtech expo.


Share